Icon Group co-founder Cathie Reid with husband and business partner Stuart Giles.
Icon Group co-founder Cathie Reid with husband and business partner Stuart Giles. contributed

Icon of business keeps reaching for new heights

Cathie Reid is one of Australia's most successful entrepreneurs.

She's the co-founder of healthcare companies Icon Group and Epic Pharmacy Group, sits on the board of the Brisbane Lions and is going into space with Virgin Galactic. And '80s hair colouring fad Glints helped launch it all.

The platinum blonde says her journey to billion-dollar businesswoman began with a pharmacy job in the '80s when a young Nicole Kidman was plugging Glints in the pages of Dolly magazine.

"I started in retail pharmacy with a part-time job after school when I was 16,” Reid tells a lunch crowd at Bond University on the Gold Coast.

"My boyfriend at the time, his sister had the job and she was leaving, so I marched into the pharmacy and said, 'I'm Deanne's brother's girlfriend and I know she's (leaving), so that means her job's coming free, can I please have it?'

"And Deanne told me the hair reps would give you free Glints rinses. So, I was, yeah! I'm up for that!”

Reid started out stacking nappies, then managed the pharmacy, then started buying pharmacies, then cancer care hospitals.

Eventually, she built a healthcare empire and a lasting love with husband and business partner Stuart Giles (pictured with Cathie).

Icon Group is now Australia's largest provider of integrated cancer care services, providing medical oncology, radiation oncology, pharmacy services and chemotherapy compounding services to patients throughout Australia.

The company is also the largest provider of medical oncology services in Singapore, providing outreach services into several Southeast Asian countries. Icon has clinics in New Zealand and partnerships begun in China.

More than 3000 people work across the group, and in the past year it provided treatments to more than two million patients. In September last year, the company was valued at $1 billion.

Brisbane-based Reid and Giles are both pharmacists, and 2018 marks 20 years since they began their journey together - both in business and in life.

"We got engaged on a Wednesday and bought our first pharmacy on a Monday,” Reid says.

"We bought four pharmacies in three states over the next three months and went from employees one and two to having 100 people as part of our team by Christmas that year. We were flying the plane as we were still building it.”

Starting out with a focus on providing pharmacy services to the aged care and private hospital industries, the pair grew their business interests through a series of mergers, sales and acquisitions, taking the opportunity along the way to diversify and push into Asia.

Their relationship has grown alongside their business partnership, and as Reid recalls, it was perhaps always meant to be that way.

"We have very different but very complementary skill sets and when we ran into each other in a lane in Melbourne 21 years ago, we didn't actually know that.

"We would (years later) actually be scientifically assessed as being almost the perfect combination of business partners, and I think that would've reduced some of the romanticism if we'd actually said, 'Well how about you do this questionnaire before we decide if we're going to go on a date or not'!”

Reid and Giles are parents to two teenagers, and for Reid, juggling her role as a mum alongside her business interests means she needs to take the right steps to keep her life on track.

"If I don't exercise in the morning - before the day hits, before the kids get up and before the work day starts - it does impact on me. I'm not as mentally fresh, I don't have as much energy.

"Something will always be out of balance, either the kids are going haywire or there might be an issue at work, or you just haven't got enough time in the day ... but you've just got to figure out what helps you do what you do, the best way you can, and what are your coping mechanisms.”

Communication is key to keeping everyone on the same page, although in the case of Reid and her children, perhaps that should be screen - one of her main ways to communicate with her kids is via bitmojis.

"We travel a lot with what we do, and we've got two teenagers, and communication is everything,” she says.

"You've got to find the communication style that works for you, and in our family we use bitmojis all the time, we've got bitmojis for everything. The one that I use the most is me with a hammer, going 'overruled', which is normally in response to a request from one of the teenagers!”

Reid's work ethic was instilled in her by her parents.

Her mother was a schoolteacher. Passionate about education, she expected her children to go to university and get a qualification to make life a little easier than it had been for her and her husband.

Reid's father was the eldest of seven, who left school early to contribute to the family income. He secured work as an apprentice fitter and turner, but also took on other jobs to continue pursuing his dream of becoming a farmer.

"My dad actually was an entrepreneur before it was a word,” Reid says.

"He worked so incredibly hard, and Mum supported him in that, and I guess showed us that if you work hard and you want something enough, you can achieve it regardless of what your circumstances were.”

Just as raising a family presents challenges, so too does building a $1 billion company.

But talk of finding the appropriate work-life balance doesn't sit well with Reid.

"I hate the term work-life balance, I think it's something that's actually been made up by the media to make women feel guilty. No one ever asks me about work-life balance, or very rarely.”

The differing attitudes were brought home to her by an experience in 2004, after she and Giles expanded their business to the West.

"We bought a pharmacy in Western Australia and you had to be domiciled in Western Australia to own a business there, so for the next four and a half years I actually commuted to Perth every fortnight to meet that requirement and work in the pharmacies and lead the pharmacies there.

"People used to bring casseroles around to Stuart and then I would come home on the alternate week and then he would travel or do whatever he needed, no one ever brought me a casserole!”

For Reid, the future is full of opportunity, including the chance to blast off into space as part of the Virgin Galactic program.

Training as an astronaut tends to raise a lot of questions, but for Reid, her reasons for wanting to embark on the ultimate adventure are simple.

"For me it's about seeing the world through a different perspective, and I think there's no more extreme way of seeing the world through a different perspective than actually going into space and looking back down on it.”

There's also big plans for Icon, but despite the headlines generated by the company's $1 billion valuation, Reid insists going into business was about more than money.

"It was never about the money,” she says. "If you stick with purpose and you execute well on it, then you can actually build a big and successful business, but your purpose can't be, 'I want to make a lot of money and I want to build a big business'. You've got to have something bigger and more meaningful than that.”

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